President's Budget Cuts to USDA Put Rural Water at Risk

The President’s Budget, revealed today, proposes a whopping 21% funding cut to USDA. Until a more detailed draft is released in May, we don’t know which programs are most at risk.  But we can be sure that this level of gouging would have a negative impact on rural communities and on clean water.

The budget promises to reduce or eliminate funding in a few key areas that would hurt rural communities:

  • The budget reduces staff in USDA’s Service Center Agencies.  It doesn’t say how many people, and which agencies will be affected.  These are the local offices of Farm Service Agency and Natural Resources Conservation Service; they provide critical technical support to farmers who want to use conservation practices on agricultural land. These service centers are already overloaded with work. It’s hard to imagine cutting jobs will improve matters.
  • The budget eliminates discretionary funding of Rural Business and Cooperative Services. This is the office of USDA that focuses on job training and business development in rural areas. 
  • The budget reduces funding for “statistical capabilities.”  It doesn’t explain what that means, but we might guess that is the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Everyone in agriculture uses this data. 
  • The budget eliminates the Water and Wastewater Loan program for rural communities. Rural drinking water supplies are already underfunded according to a recent USA today report.

America didn't vote for this.

What we don’t know is how the tremendously-popular Farm Bill conservation programs would be affected by the proposed cuts. But if history is an indicator, it’s not going to be good. 

Conservation programs are the only line of defense protecting water quality from agricultural sources of pollution, because we rely almost entirely on voluntary measures. For a number of years, these beneficial programs have been consistently targeted for budget cuts.  And the cuts to rural drinking water programs will hurt more as we cut conservation; we’ll need to spend more on rural drinking water supplies, not less.

Meanwhile, spending has increased for other agricultural programs, particularly crop insurance.  This budget won’t reduce spending for crop insurance, and might actually trigger greater long-term expenses due to a lack of investment in conservation practices that protect the soil against erosion, and improve soil health for climate resilience in times of drought and flood. You can read more about how this budget could lead to greater costs for the crop insurance program in my colleague Claire's blog.

We have a responsibility to future generations, and we have to invest in that future. The President’s Budget would cost America too much, in the long-term. Fortunately, Congress ultimately writes the budget, not the President. Unfortunately, the Appropriations Committees in both Houses have been taking a red pen to conservation programs for years, cutting away as if there is literally no tomorrow and no need to worry about the negative consequences for the environment and future generations.  

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